California inmate dies in solitary cell amid hunger strike

After refusing food for more than 20 days, inmate Bill Sell reportedly dies by hanging while in solitary confinement

Reporters inspect one of the two-tiered cell pods in the Secure Housing Unit at the Pelican Bay State Prison near Crescent City, Calif., Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2011. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

A California inmate is reported to have died by hanging while in solitary confinement amid a system-wide hunger strike protesting living conditions in the state's lockups, prison activists announced.

Prison officials said Saturday that they are investigating Monday's death at California State Prison, Corcoran as a possible suicide. They are awaiting the Kings County coroner's report before making a final determination on the cause of death of 32-year-old Bill "Guero" Sell.

The coroner did not return a phone call seeking comment Saturday.

Inmate supporters and prison officials disagree over whether Sell was participating in the strike that has been going on for more than 20 days. Prison officials said he wasn't. Activists supporting the hunger strike from outside the prison say otherwise.

Hunger strike organizers also say that although Sell was not receiving treatment for mental illness, the prisoners around his cell report he had repeatedly requested medical attention to no avail before his death. 

Sell was serving a life sentence for attempted murder, while awaiting trial for the murder of a cell mate.

For more than 20 days, about 1,000 inmates at 11 prisons have been refusing to eat. In the first days of the strike upwards of 30,000 inmates were refusing meals.

This is the third hunger strike launched since 2011 to protest living conditions in the California prison system's security housing units, where 4,500 gang members, gang associates and serious offenders are held in extreme isolation, some of them for terms of more than 10 years.

Prison officials said 42 inmates have sought treatment in prison infirmaries for health problems related to the strike. One inmate on the hunger strike had to be taken to an outside hospital for a night, said Joyce Hayhoe, a spokeswoman for a federal judge put in charge of the prison system's medical care.

Ronald Ahnen, one of seven mediators, who is attempting to negotiate with state officials on behalf of the prisoners said Gov. Jerry Brown (D) and prison administrators are refusing to engage the prisoners.

"They had a chance to negotiate, but have refused to discuss the situation at all," Ahnen said. "Obviously, the longer the strike continues, the chances increased that something like this was going to happen," she said.

The protesters are demanding an end to indeterminate sentences and for alternative ways to leave the units other than "debriefing," which the prisoners say is an agreement to inform on gang members and a risk to their safety from reprisals for "snitching."

The security housing units at Pelican Bay Prison in Northern California are the subject of a lawsuit alleging that the living conditions, which include confinement to the prison’s cells for 23 hours a day and very little contact with other people, amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.

The protest is the latest disruption for a prison system already facing legal and logistical challenges.

Officials are struggling to move about 2,600 inmates from two Central Valley prisons because they are considered especially vulnerable to a potentially fatal airborne fungus. They also are appealing a separate court order requiring the state to release nearly 10,000 inmates by year's end to reduce prison crowding as the best way to improve conditions for sick and mentally ill inmates.

Al Jazeera and The Associated Press

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